Amid a roiling humanitarian disaster in a U.S. territory, President Trump has one clear, overriding message for the people of Puerto Rico and the rest of the United States: He, Donald Trump, is doing a phenomenal job.
Here’s Trump Friday morning:
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello just stated: "The Administration and the President, every time we've spoken, they've delivered......— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 29, 2017
And Thursday morning:
Puerto Rico is devastated. Phone system, electric grid many roads, gone. FEMA and First Responders are amazing. Governor said "great job!"— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 29, 2017
And Tuesday morning:
Thank you to Carmen Yulin Cruz, the Mayor of San Juan, for your kind words on FEMA etc.We are working hard. Much food and water there/on way— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 26, 2017
The president is not the only person to make this claim. On Thursday, acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine Duke called herself “very satisfied” with the response to Maria.
“I know it’s a hard storm to recover from, but the amount of progress that’s been made, and I really would appreciate any support that we get,” she said. “I know it is really a good news story in terms of our ability to reach people and the limited number of deaths that have taken place in such a devastating hurricane.”
On CNN Friday morning, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who Trump had cited earlier in the week, heard that and reacted incredulously.
“She said that?” Cruz said. After hearing the clip, she said:
Well, maybe from where she’s standing it’s a good news story. When you’re drinking from a creek, it’s not a good news story. When you don’t have food for a baby, it’s not a good news story. When you have to pull people down from their buildings—I’m sorry, but that really upsets me and frustrates me. I would ask her to come down here and visit the towns and then make as statement like that, which frankly, it is an irresponsible statement and it contrasts with the statements of support that I have been getting since yesterday when I got that call from the White House. Dammit, this is not a good news story! This is a people-are-dying story. This is a life-or-death story. This is a there’s-a truckload-of-stuff-that-cannot-be-taken-to-people story. This a story of a devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food and water.
It’s a reality of disasters that, as former FEMA Director James Lee Witt put it to me earlier this week, “If you’re one of the victims, every hour and every day is too long.” There are real obstacles that make it difficult to distribute aid around Puerto Rico. Roads are destroyed, gas stations are dry, the power grid is down, and telecommunications infrastructure is out of service. Even as the port of San Juan fills up with containers, people outside of the capital city can’t get basic supplies. These are not problems that the federal government, or anyone else, can fix instantaneously.
Yet even granting the difficulty, the Trump administration’s insistence that Maria recovery is a success feels tone-deaf—adding insult to injury for Puerto Ricans who can’t eat or find clean water.
Part of this seems to be Trump’s struggle to project empathy, which he displayed in the early days after Hurricane Harvey, where he excelled at the inspirational, rah-rah, we will rebuild aspects of presidential response, but found it very hard to show he felt the pain of Gulf Coast residents. (By contrast, he has expressed caution about what to do in Puerto Rico, tweeting, “The fact is that Puerto Rico has been destroyed by two hurricanes. Big decisions will have to be made as to the cost of its rebuilding!”) Another part is Trump’s tendency toward puffery: In all situations, for his entire career, his impulse has been to magnify and celebrate his own prowess and success, and so he’s doing that here too. But that fake-it-till-you-make-it approach understandably rankles people like Yulín.
In service of his self-celebratory project, Trump has enlisted Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, willingly or not. Over and over, Trump has noted Rosselló’s gratitude. But the governor is in a difficult situation. He knows that he is largely dependent on Washington in both the immediate and long-term aftermath of the storm. Even as he has thanked Trump profusely, Rosselló has also repeatedly begged for the federal government to do more.
The federal government has shown a willingness to deal roughly with Puerto Rico in recent years, resisting a bankruptcy that might help it discharge its crippling debts and seizing control of the island’s financial restructuring. The governor must know that Trump has shown a tendency to punish those who criticize him. “A massive effort is underway, and we have been really treated very, very nicely by the governor and by everybody else,” Trump said Tuesday. “They know how hard we’re working and what a good job we’re doing.” Why would Trump focus on how he had been treated by the leaders of Puerto Rico, when they are the ones recovering from a storm? One could imagine Rosselló interpreting that as a veiled threat not to complain about the president. Conveniently, the lack of any criticism from Rosselló allows Trump to claim victory.
Trump’s celebratory comments loom over a tricky situation in Puerto Rico. It’s clear that people need more help, but from the mainland it’s difficult to figure out quite where the breakdowns are. Waiving the Jones Act may be the right thing to do by Puerto Rico in the long run, but it seems unlikely to help in the next few days. Yulín has repeatedly complained that there are personnel on the ground in Puerto Rico but that they’re not being empowered to help.
“Where is there good news here?” the mayor said Friday morning on CNN. “The good news is that we’re getting heard. The good news is that there’s boots on the ground.The good news is that the people from FEMA have their heart in the right place, and the [Health and Human Services] people know what they need to do. For heaven’s sake, somebody let them do their job.”
It’s unlikely that the president or the secretary of homeland security are going to roll up their sleeves and solve these logistical problems, but their insistence that all is going well when it clearly isn’t undermines faith in federal recovery efforts. Politicians know that disasters can be make-or-break events for their careers, and so they all want to convince voters that they have succeeded. Trump’s handling of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma was generally well-rated, especially compared to how most of his actions as president have been received. By insisting that the Maria recovery is a success, Trump may convince some voters that is true, but it is clear that more needs to be done for Puerto Rico, and if relief does not improve soon, Trump’s early boasts may come back to haunt him.